September 2010

Bringing Good from Evil

September 21 2010 by Bill Wilson

In the midst of the pandemic of conflict swirling through local churches in the 21st century, it is tempting to lose heart. Many do. I have had heartbreaking conversations with scores of clergy and laity who have emerged from bruising local church conflict filled with bitterness and disillusionment toward ministry and the church. Families that found great joy and inspiration from their local church are left scarred by the discord and brutality they have witnessed. Young people who once considered vocational ministry are now repulsed by the idea. Ministers who faithfully followed God’s leading and invested their life in the church are left battered and bruised, wondering if they have, or even want, a future in ministry.

Is there a word of hope for such a time? Is there a way to see church conflict redemptively? Can our loss and failure be part of a larger story that is yet to be played out? Is there Kingdom work yet to be done for those who have been victimized by others? How about those who have been the antagonists?

Perhaps one of the most important lessons we can learn and re-learn in the midst of this era of conflict is that God is in the business of turning hopeless situations into triumphs, of turning our failures into His success, of shining light into darkness, and of bringing life from death. The Bible bears witness to the powerful truth of redemption. It begins with the amazing story of Joseph, which closes with that memorable line found in Genesis 50:20: “what you meant for evil, God meant for good.” Throughout the story of the children of Israel, hopeless gives way to hope. Whether it is trapped on the shore of the Red Sea or staring into the face of a giant, God shows up with a way out. Later, Paul articulates a spiritual truth that permeates the Bible and our churches today: “in all things God works for good” (Rom. 8:28).

Redemption is played out again and again, until finally, on the cross, the worst of the darkness and seemingly final defeat is turned into the ultimate victory.

Along the way, imperfect men and women who fail miserably are reborn to do great things for the Kingdom. When it comes to biblical characters, deep personal flaws and shortcomings are the norm. Even so, failure and defeat rarely have the last word. God specializes in taking the least likely, the most dysfunctional, the chief tormentor, and through the grace miracle of repentance and forgiveness gives them pivotal parts to play in his divine drama.

When significant conflict visits a local church, one word we must hold onto and cultivate is hope.

Whatever is happening or has happened to you and your church, God is still God. While the dark days and despair may seem to have the upper hand, the witness of the ages is that God is able to accomplish more than we can imagine even when it seems all is lost.

Our family recently had our own personal lesson in this regard. In the early hours of September 11th, on a day that is known appropriately as a reminder of loss, tragedy and evil, a new life came into the world to remind us that all is not lost. William Stanton Wilson was born that day, our first grandson, and his birthday will be a constant reminder for years to come that, even on a day that seems to declare that evil has triumphed; the ultimate victory of life is as close as a baby’s cry.

Perhaps there are new and good things being born in the midst of the conflict that surrounds us. God’s people know about redemption. Now we need to believe that it can happen to us. This is not just a story for others. To participate requires that we acknowledge our shortcomings, humbly repent, and then avail ourselves of his grace. When we do, then we, too, can be part of bringing good from evil, light from darkness, and life from death.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health.)          
9/21/2010 8:18:00 AM by Bill Wilson | with 1 comments

When conflict turns ugly

September 8 2010 by Bill Wilson

One of the saddest truths I have come to understand about conflict in congregations is how destructive it can be. Years of progress and effective ministry can be negated by unhealthy conflict. Careers can be ruined, faith and hope in Christ eroded, and the growth of the Kingdom of God thwarted. With so very much at stake, it is imperative that every congregation deliberately cultivate a capacity for managing conflict.

One key component of such a capacity is to clarify our expectation that conflict is inevitable and expected. Conflict is normal. Just as with your biological family, when human beings live in close proximity to one another, conflict will follow. Every church I know is comprised of unique and diverse people with multiple opinions and convictions. While that diversity makes us strong and interesting, it also means we will not always agree or see things alike. The New Testament’s descriptions of life as the body of Christ presume that our differences will become one of the traits that make us strong. First Corinthians 12 celebrates the diversity of gifts within the family and suggests that our unity is not a result of identical opinions and practices, but of a shared love for Jesus as our savior.

De-criminalizing conflict is a good place to start. As my friend George Bullard declares, “every church needs a little conflict.” One of the ways we know we actually care about our faith and our church and its future is that we have enough passion to contend for our position or opinion. If issues at your church do not matter enough to move you, or if you haven’t thought about an issue enough to form a substantive opinion, then you probably need to ask how much your faith actually means to you. Healthy conflict is one of the most effective means for a church to grow deeper in its understanding of spiritual truth that God sends us.

On the other hand, when conflict overwhelms the mission of the church and becomes the primary way we experience congregational life, it has become far too pervasive and needs intervention and healing. Knowing when we have reached that point is always a difficult call. However, there are some warning signs that indicate you have crossed the boundary from healthy conflict into unhealthy and destructive behavior.

Here are some simple things my colleague Chris Gambill says to look for that suggest the need for help with managing conflict:
  • People change in the way they interact with one another. You begin to sense suspicion, avoidance, coolness, eye rolling, etc.
  • There are significant or sudden decreases in general budget giving or increases in designated giving.
  • There are significant or sudden decreases in volunteerism or attendance at particular events.
  • Small groups begin to meet in private to discuss church-related issues.
  • There is orchestration or coordination of meeting designs or voting (including meetings before the meeting or after the meeting).
  • You experience the dreaded e-mail campaigns or telephone campaigns.
  • You see disproportionate responses to stimuli. This overreaction takes the form of anger, frustration, or conflict that emerges over what were previously insignificant issues.
  • There are unexpectedly high turnouts for business or informational meetings.
  • You sense a steady increase in criticism of pastor, staff or lay leaders
  • There is growing polarization within the congregation. Members begin using “we” and “they” language.
When you see these indicators, it is time to act. An essential ingredient in any congregation’s successful navigation of intense conflict is the use of objective guidance. When severe conflict visits a congregation, outside counsel is indispensible. While in the midst of congregational conflict, one’s vision and perspective becomes clouded by subjectivity. It often takes someone looking from the outside into a congregational system to point out the path out of the conflict. If you can find a trusted and mature guide for that journey, the chances of emerging from a season of conflict intact increase significantly. Surely God’s people can agree that his design for his church is that it be a source of life and encouragement to its members and the world around it. The way we are to treat one another is to serve as a compelling invitation to the life of faith. When we fail to model the fruit of the Spirit, we have forsaken one of our central reasons for being. May God give you the wisdom and courage to build a church that leaves your community marveling: “see how they love one another!”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health.)  
9/8/2010 5:08:00 AM by Bill Wilson | with 1 comments